Democrats have a duty to use this time of transition to define how they will respond during a Biden presidency to Republican lying, obstruction, and blatant disregard for the rule of law. And immediately impeaching Attorney General William Barr, who on Monday authorized federal prosecutors to examine baseless “allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities” before states move to certify results in the 2020 presidential election, is the place to start. As Barr and President Trump promote legal chaos in a subversive challenge to an election result that has gone against them, they are kicking at the essential underpinnings of the Constitution and the republic that extends from it. The Constitution outlines a remedy, and it ought to be employed, immediately and unapologetically.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren was right to argue on Monday night that “Attorney General Bill Barr is a corrupt Trump henchman who should have been impeached months ago.” With the attorney general now moving to upend an election, the argument for impeachment is even stronger.
This should not be a tough call, and this is not a time for House Democrats to whine about “impeachment fatigue.” No one expects Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican cronies to disrupt Barr’s long train of abuses and usurpations. But impeachment is a multifaceted tool of accountability that can be used not merely to set up a process for the Senate to remove an official—as should have happened in February when that chamber considered Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors—but for the House of Representatives to rebuke a wrongdoer. The chamber that Democrats control, the House, needs to sanction lawlessness, setting down a marker—for this tumultuous moment and for the future. While Barr is hardly the only Trump associate now engaged in efforts to deny and derail the 2020 vote count, this is especially important when the official engaging in the lawlessness is the attorney general of the United States.
A failure to hold Barr accountable when he is so obviously conniving with Trump to meddle in the processes of counting votes and certifying results would signal to the American people and to both parties that when Republicans are perverting their positions for purely partisan and deeply destructive purposes there will be no consequences. Sending that signal is every bit as dangerous as anything Trump or his allies might do at this point; it would continue a Democratic pattern of pulling punches when the party’s congressional leaders should be using all the tools at their disposal to defend the will of the people against abuses of the public trust.
It is undeniable that Barr is abusing that trust when he disregards his oath of office in order to undermine confidence in an election result.
The attorney general, who long ago indicated that he is more interested in representing Trump’s political interests than serving as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, has tossed aside Department of Justice standards that have historically prohibited prosecutors from engaging in blatantly partisan interventions in the electoral processes of the states. So egregious was Barr’s action that Richard Pilger, the career prosecutor who has served as director of the election crimes branch in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, resigned in protest Monday night, warning that the attorney general had implemented “an important new policy abrogating the forty-year-old Non-Interference Policy for ballot fraud investigations in the period prior to elections becoming certified and uncontested.” In a memo to colleagues, Pilger wrote, “Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications, and in accord with the best tradition of the John C. Keeney Award for Exceptional Integrity and Professionalism (my most cherished Departmental recognition), I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch.”
Vanita Gupta, who served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division in President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, says Pilger’s “resignation from election crimes and the memo are a testament to how grossly politicized and partisan the Barr DOJ is, in service of Trump. It is a total travesty.” Gupta, who now leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, argues that Barr’s action “is about disruption, disinformation, and sowing chaos. Trump is furious, demanding all ‘his’ lawyers take action. They have no evidence so they’ll push the PR. Doesn’t change the result.” She’s right about that. She’s also right when she explains that while Barr had little power to alter results, the attorney general is using his latest order “to undermine confidence in [the] outcome [of the election] with Trump voters and ultimately a Biden administration.”
Senator Warren responded with appropriate fury when she mentioned impeachment as a necessary response to Barr’s lawlessness, and when she argued, “If he cared one shred about our democracy, he’d be focused on the peaceful transition of power instead of doing the bidding of a wannabe dictator.” The former law professor is not alone in her thinking. Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen, a senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, in June proposed a Congressional Resolution demanding an inquiry into whether the chamber should impeach Barr based on a pattern of “obstructing justice to benefit the president and his political allies.” Thirty-five House Democrats cosponsored Cohen’s proposal to hold Barr accountable for having “undermined our judicial system and perverted the rule of law.”
At the time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed Cohen’s initiative, saying that while Barr is “contemptible,” it’s better to “solve our problems by going to the polls and voting on Election Day.”
OK, following that logic, roughly 150 million Americans voted on Election Day. Now, at the loser of that election’s behest, Barr is messing with the process of counting the votes, so it’s long past time for Democrats to do something about it.
House Democrats have the power to fight every effort to undermine confidence not just in the election but in the soon-to-be-inaugurated Biden administration. In doing so, the Democrats can indicate that they are finally prepared to check and balance conservative miscreants. The scope and character of their response to Trump and Barr’s lawless scheming to upend an election that Biden will ultimately win by more than 5 million votes—and with a clear Electoral College majority—will communicate to the American people whether they’re going to govern boldly or compromise, whether they are willing to fight to restore the rule of law or are so determined to “play nice” that they invite further abuse.
John Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism (New Press).